Born in Brazil but living in Japan for nearly two decades, Kleber Koike believes winning might not be enough for him to secure a shot at the RIZIN featherweight championship.
Set to headlined Wednesday’s RIZIN Trigger 2 against veteran Ulka Sasaki at the Ecopa Arena, a 15-minute drive away from home in Shizuoka, Koike told MMA Fighting he was expected to face Juntaro Ushiku for the gold but the champion “said he’s injured.” Koike doesn’t buy it, but remains confident that “it’s a matter of time until I fight for the belt.”
A win over Sasaki would move Koike, a former KSW champion, to 4-0 under the RIZIN banner in just 15 months, but stills expects the promotion to push Mikuru Asakura first even though Koike choked him unconscious this past June.
And even though he tapped his more-famous opponent in his most recent bout, Koike stills expects Asakura to be in a more favorable position following decision victories over Kyohei Hagiwara and Yutaka Saito in the fourth quarter of 2021.
“It’s up to them now,” Koike said. “I consider myself the No. 1 contender but Asakura, whom I beat in June, is coming off two wins and is a popular guy and the promotion wants to make him a champion, so he might jump the line ahead of me. He’s Japan’s [Conor] McGregor, there’s nothing you can say.
“I had a conversation with RIZIN and they might to a grand prix this year, and I wanted to fight for the belt before the tournament so I can enter it as the champion. It’s up to them. I’m learning that being a fighter is not enough, what counts is marketing and social media, and Asakura is strong in that area. The promotion gives him this privilege only because of that.”
Not getting a title shot is upsetting, but Koike has received positive feedback in Japan for his victory over Asakura, especially for the dekasegi and gaijin community — foreigners that have move to Japan for work.
“Today I can say I’ve changed many people’s lives,” he said. “I’m not bragging, but [Roberto] Satoshi and I are putting the dekasegi on another level. In the past, people would say, ‘Oh, he’s just another gaijin.’ But we’ve earned our space and it’s reflecting in the Brazilian community.
“People don’t say gaijin anymore, they say ‘Brazilians that are fighting for RIZIN.’ ‘Do you know the champion, Satoshi, and the one that beat Asakura?’ It’s been seven months since the fight and I’m still recognized in the streets and asked for pictures.
The first thing they say is, ‘Oh, it’s the kid that beat Asakura.’”
Koike remains confident that the RIZIN belt will eventually come, but must get past through Sasaki first. The UFC veteran is 2-3 since joining RIZIN in 2018, a run that includes a decision victory over Manel Kape, but lost a decision to Yoshinori Horie in his most recent appearance. Koike recalls losing a no-gi match to Sasaki a decade ago in Japan, and said “that’s why I think he agreed to this fight.”
“But we are in different times and we’re fighting MMA. I see myself submitting him,” Koike said. “I don’t think he’ll stand and trade with me. I don’t have the flashiest or best striking, but he hasn’t traded much after getting his jaw broken. His best weapon is the grappling and so is mine, so I don’t see a path for victory for him. He makes a lot of mistakes on the ground. He has a good back take, you can’t deny that, but his grappling is loose.”